Although an affair can disrupt your relationship in almost any area, there are three broad domains that frequently show negative impact from the affair. For some couples, one or more of these areas was already a source of difficulty before the affair. For such couples, the additional stress of an affair often leads to severe dysfunction in that particular domain.
Following a betrayal trauma, nearly all couples need to address the issue of how to regain some sense of equilibrium in one or more of the following areas, which vary on a continuum of vulnerability from instrumental, task-oriented activities to more emotional and intimate activities.
The three broad domain areas are:
Following a betrayal trauma, nearly all couples need to address the issue of how to regain some sense of equilibrium
Disruption of Daily Tasks
Often, after an affair there is a breakdown in daily routines, household chores, and patterns of interaction. This happens for a number of reasons:
Typically, both partners contribute to the relationship and complete various tasks for the wellbeing of the couple but after an affair many individuals, particularly the injured partner, no longer put forth the same effort they had previously. After an affair, motivation to expend extra effort to benefit the other partner is compromised. So, shopping for and preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning the house, putting gas in the car, along with many other activities are no longer taken care of as usual. If partners are so upset with one another that they can't even talk to each other about the issues, then their lives become more stressful and daily needs are not addressed.
It is important that the aspect of daily, household tasks and responsibilities are addressed.
Disruption of Companionship Activities
An important aspect of most intimate relationships is the partnerships that couples share, engaging in a wide variety of enjoyable activities together.
Every couple has routines for relaxation or play, such as going to the movies together, enjoying a play, exercising together, inviting friends over for the evening, or taking short weekend trips out of town; however these activities are frequently disrupted in the aftermath of an affair.
The injured partner might feel too upset and angry to propose that the couple go to a movie together. Likewise, the participating partner might believe it is too presumptuous to suggest that the couple continue with their previously planned vacation.
On the other hand, both partners may retain a strong wish for these activities. The participating partner might want to show how much he or she wants to be with the injured partner and suggest a lot of “togetherness” activities. Similarly, some injured partners seek reassurance from shared activities or fear that they have not been a “good enough” companion and now try to make up for it by suggesting lots of ways to spend time together.
Often, there is some confusion between partners about what is acceptable, so it’s important to raise the issue. Remember that the desire for companionship with the other person will likely change over the course of recovery and partners might have different desires at various times. Therefore, it’s important to be patient during these interactions and be mindful of the variety of emotional responses that might come up during these interactions. Make a good-faith effort to be positive during these interactions and tell the other person if an activity becomes unpleasant or aversive.
Disruption of Intimate Interactions
While companionship activities might be ones that someone does with a friend, other activities that couples enjoy involve more intimate interactions, typically reserved for a romantic, committed relationship. This category includes:
Moreover, given that the trauma of an affair involves sexual interactions with a third person, sexual interactions between the participating and injured partner may seem meaningless or aversive.
I make no single recommendation to couples regarding intimate or sexual interactions, but these issues need to be raised during therapy. Don’t engage in intimate behaviors that make either person highly uncomfortable. Instead, try to understand that after an affair, there are many decisions to make, including how to interact with each other while assessing whether to maintain the relationship longterm.
Guidelines for Decision-making Discussions
Couples regularly face a wide range of issues requiring joint decisions. For example, these decisions can range from management of couple- and family-focused daily responsibilities, engagement in companionship activities, and consideration about whether or not to engage in more intimate interactions. The general decision-making skills outlined below can be helpful for many couples facing difficult decisions after an affair.
State the issue clearly and specifically.
Clarify why the issue is important and what your needs are.
Discuss possible solutions.
Decide on a solution that is agreeable to both of you.
Decide on a trial period to implement the solution, if it is a situation that will occur more than once.
TJ Walsh, MA LPC NCC
TJ is a licensed professional counselor in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and board certified by NBCC as a National Certified Counselor. His primary clinical focus is trauma, emotional abuse, affairs and betrayal traumas, existential crisis and restoration/deepening of the relationship one has with him/her/their self. He is also an artist and educator in Counseling Psychology at Eastern University in Saint Davids, Pennsylvania.
Loss can take many forms and some loss is more devastating than others.
When our spouse tells us that they want a divorce, when a close friend or family member dies, when we get laid off from a job or when we become disabled by illness or injury, or when there is tragedy in our community—our lives can be sent into a tailspin.
Loss forces us to face several psychological challenges, but by incorporating the arts into our lives, these new challenges can be used as a tool for gaining momentum in the healing process.
As we reconstruct our identity to match our new circumstances, we must at the same time be adjusting our belief systems. As human beings we naturally try to make sense of our experiences in life. Some of us articulate it more clearly than others do, but we each have our own way of understanding how the world works, a unique set of beliefs and assumptions that form the lens through which we view the world and our individual place in it. Loss and grief can challenge these basic assumptions and make us question everything that we thought we knew. We are flooded with doubts and questions; often the simplest question is simply—why? It is our challenge to find ways of making sense of what happened and adjusting our belief systems accordingly.
To grow, we have to find within ourselves a way to ascribe meaning to the events and discover a new purpose to steer us into our new existence. A helpful exercise for redefining our belief systems is to take a piece of paper and write down everything that we thought that we knew, and all the beliefs that we held on to. Once you have scribed all of these beliefs and assumptions onto the paper, paint over them. Once the paint dries, inscribe your new beliefs and your new perspectives over top of the old ones.
Recovering from grief and loss takes time but the best way to treat our psychological injuries is to take on these challenges at our own pace, confronting and overcoming them one by one.
"I could never do what you do. How do you listen to problems all day?"
This is a question that I get all of the time. But you know what? I don’t see my job as listening to problems at all. Rather, I spend my time being witness to resilience.
I hear painful stories. I see pain. I feel it, too. Sometimes, after I hear a story I need to close my door and cry a little bit.
But, I also see the beauty of life. The strength of human resiliency. The need to find acceptance and offer grace in the unpredictability of it all.
I don't see my job as listening to problems as all. Rather, I spend my time being witness to resilience.
Each day, I get to see how people can change. I get to watch as they recognize unhelpful patterns and shift them. I also see how people in many ways often stay the same. I see them sitting in my office as the sweet child with dreams and where fun and joy can pop up, almost unexpectedly.
In my job, I get to also be a student. I am taught great lessons every day by my clients. I am regularly reminded to count my blessings. But, also, to grieve my losses.
I am offered the beautiful opportunity of my own struggles being normalized. I get to see what life is truly like for most people behind closed doors.
This offers me permission to be human. It also grants me the great reminder to never forget that other people are human, too.
My job is a great honor. And whether we connect in my office or through here, I am inspired by you.
I want to share with you something that I know from getting to know so many people so intimately:
You’re not the only one. Someone else has faced something similar. There are other couples out there that are struggling in the same way you are.
Other individuals feeling similar feelings that you feel.
People all over the world worrying, grieving, and crying, and just trying really really hard. And also surviving and thriving.
You’re not alone in your struggles. And, at the same time, you’re beautifully unique and the world needs you and your experiences, perspectives, and presence.